All it took was 20 minutes to be cleared. A rapid Covid-19 antigen test followed by a 10-minute wait for the results and you were stamped "approved" to attend the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit. The result? Six hundred members of the travel industry who descended upon the Moon Palace Cancun to take park in the first major international travel conference to be held since the beginning of the pandemic.
The theme of the event was "Uniting the World for Recovery," and it brought together global leaders, industry professionals, travel agents, hoteliers, media and more to learn about what to expect from travel in the immediate future as vaccines roll out and the world wakes up. And while it was a major step forward for the travel industry as a whole, for Mexico it represented the relaunch of a segment that has really been hurting -- meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions travel.
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According to the Ministry of Tourism, MICE accounts for 1.5% of Mexico's national GDP. In the Mexican Caribbean alone, MICE represented 30% of hotel occupancy in 2019 and generated more than $4.5 million for the region.
But the success of the WTTC Global Summit may mean things are turning around for the MICE market. That, coupled with vaccine rollouts across the United States, may also indicate that we can take another step forward to the return to "normal."
"Having this event marks the return of big international high-level gatherings," said Lizzie Cole, executive director of tourism promotion for the state of Quintana Roo. "Even though we have been able to reinitiate leisure travel, this is a very important mark in terms of the MICE segment, which is very important for us."
In order to carry out the conference, the host venue as well as all the participants had to comply with the latest safety regulations -- and beyond. Earlier on in the pandemic, Quintana Roo created a certification for prevention and protection of tourist-related businesses. This certification was offered for free to business that met the standards across 250 guidelines for health and prevention. Seven thousand companies in the state registered for the certification.
Palace Resorts was selected as the host resort for the conference. The brand implemented its program, Purely Palace, in 2020, which includes enhanced sanitization and safety protocols as well as on-site testing for travelers headed back to the United States or Canada. If a guest tests positive, Palace Resorts also covers the cost of quarantine for up to 14 days at no cost for guests, for up to two guests should both test positive.
But the WTTC went a step beyond. It's a great move to keep people safe once they arrive, but because Mexico has no entry requirements, you don't know if anyone who has arrived may be infected with the virus. To combat that in a conference setting, the WTTC implemented mandatory antigen tests on-site, prior to being allowed to register. Results were delivered in 15 minutes and after receiving negative results, participants were then permitted to register and obtain their badges. Should a test come back positive, participants would be permitted to stay at Moon Palace for the mandatory 14-day quarantine, free of charge.
Participants were kept six feet apart at all conference activities. Chairs in the main hall were positioned appropriately, and the event also utilized virtual meetings for networking. In fact, while 600 people were attending in person, more than 30,000 people were connected remotely.
Masks were mandatory in all indoor spaces, but members were permitted to remove their masks when sitting at the evening dinners, which were all held outside. Temperature screenings and hand sanitizer were ubiquitous from check-in and bus transportation to entrance to the convention center and all events. In my experience, all of this may be promised in a leisure travel setting, but on arrival the rigidity of the rules can often slip. In a conference environment, I found the protocols to be no-nonsense.
The conference was originally supposed to be held in 2020, but had to pivot due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last November, Gloria Guevara, CEO of the WTTC, and Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez, governor of Quintana Roo, held a joint press conference and said that this event was going to be a platform for the recovery of the sector.
And it truly was the first large-scale travel conference to be held since the world slammed on the breaks more than a year ago. This felt like the first stirrings of the networking and educational events that have always been integral to growing business in the travel industry.
In the wake of this example, can we expect other destinations to follow?
"I think this meeting has been very relevant," said Rodrigo Esponda, Los Cabos Tourism managing director. "They have taken a leadership role into hosting this event and having active participation from all ends. The private and public sector, the airlines and suppliers are all interested in learning how to reactivate the industry."